Well-drilled Napoli standing in the way of Real's defence

The Real Madrid players are in good spirits as they gear up to take on a Napoli side who are proving to be a tough nut to crack, having gone 18 games unbeaten. Real will play the Serie A side at home in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League
The Real Madrid players are in good spirits as they gear up to take on a Napoli side who are proving to be a tough nut to crack, having gone 18 games unbeaten. Real will play the Serie A side at home in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MADRID • Holders Real Madrid have mastered the art of winning without hitting top gear this season. But that strategy will be severely tested in today's Champions League last-16 first-leg showdown against a Napoli side who have developed their own invincible aura.

Primera Liga leaders Real were riding high as they set a Spanish record 40-match unbeaten streak in all competitions.

That run was finally snapped by Sevilla last month and now Napoli have taken up the mantle of the hardest team to beat in Europe, stringing together 18 games without defeat.

Real's scrappy 3-1 win at basement club Osasuna on Saturday displayed visible weaknesses in their rearguard as Zinedine Zidane's use of a back three bore mixed results.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was called upon numerous times to thwart the La Liga strugglers.

The return of fit-again right-back Dani Carvajal should see Zidane revert to his favoured 4-3-3 line-up as he has an almost full-strength side at his disposal except for Wales forward Gareth Bale, who recently returned to training following an ankle injury.

There is also a slight fitness doubt over talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who trained apart from the team on Monday after suffering a heavy tackle in the win over Osasuna.

But the Portuguese forward managed to return to join the team session yesterday.

Zidane called on his players to shut Napoli out at the Santiago Bernabeu in his pre-match conference yesterday.

"When you play at home, it is important to keep a clean sheet. That is our message of course," the Real manager said.

"We know the game is 50-50. We know we can do damage to them, and they can also make it difficult for us. We must battle hard as Napoli are tough opponents.

"We must go step by step, game by game. Each team wants to be the champions. But it is a long and tough road, and we are on that road."

Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik, who returned to the squad for Friday's 2-0 win over strugglers Genoa but stayed on the bench after four months out with a knee injury, could make his comeback against Real.

Belgium forward Dries Mertens has taken on the team's attacking responsibilities in his absence, plundering 13 goals in his last 10 games and inspiring a run of seven wins and one draw this year, taking Napoli to third in Serie A.

An estimated 10,000 Napoli fans, including the most famous player in the team's history, Diego Maradona, are expected to make the trip to Madrid for the first competitive meeting with Real since 1987.

In addition, Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol will face their former side for the first time.

"We're feeling the fans' support a lot. The Bernabeu is an intimidating stadium to play at but the only way to get past Real Madrid is to be brave and go there with intent," Napoli and Spain goalkeeper Pepe Reina told radio station Onda Cero.

"Maradona's presence will motivate us and we hope we don't disappoint him."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Well-drilled Napoli standing in the way of Real's defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe